Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478
Composed 1785 in Vienna
It comes as a surprise to many listeners that most of the chamber music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—including the great chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—was written for performance by “amateurs” in private homes. Before the days of radio, CDs, and mp3s, if you wanted to listen to music, your options were quite limited. Either you went to one of the relatively few concerts in your area—keep in mind the difficulty of traveling even short distances in those days—or you played music yourself at home. There was a tremendous market for music written for “amateurs” for “entertainment” at home. The talents of these “amateurs” varied widely (and the quality of the “entertainment,” too, I’m sure), some being extraordinarily accomplished (professionals in disguise, as it were), others considerably less so. Generally, these “amateurs” were the daughters and sons of upper and middle class families. Typically, women played the keyboard (either the harpsichord or fortepiano in Mozart’s day); men played the string and woodwind instruments. (It was not considered seemly for women to hold cellos between their legs, flutes to their lips, or violins upon their bosoms.) Wise composers kept this in mind as they were planning their musical ventures, and rarely wrote beyond the average performance abilities of the day.
As the owner and operator of one of Vienna’s foremost music publishing businesses, Franz Anton Hoffmeister knew his customers well and aimed to offer them brilliant, engaging, but only moderately challenging music. With an eye to potential sales, Hoffmeister approached a rising young star, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a commission for three quartets in 1785. The quartets were to be written for the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, and cello.
Mozart set to work quickly on the first of the series, the Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, finishing it in October of 1785, and by December, Hoffmeister had the parts engraved and available for sale. Hoffmeister thought the quartet was too difficult and worried that the public would not buy it. In an attempt to cut his imagined losses, he bought out Mozart from the remainder of his commission. (Nine months later, Mozart composed his second quartet anyway, the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493; it was published by the rival firm of Artaria.)
Hoffmeister was right to worry about the “difficulty” and marketability of the quartet. In the Journal des Luxus and der Moden on June 1788, an anonymous writer observed
Some time ago, a single quartet of Mozart (for fortepiano, one violin, one viola, and violoncello) was engraved and published, which is very artistically composed and in performance needs the utmost precision in all the four parts, but even when well played, or so it seems, is able and intended to delight only connoisseurs of music.... Many another piece keeps some countenance, even when indifferently performed; but in truth one can hardly bear listening to this product of Mozart’s when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands and is negligently played.... What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room where the sound of every note cannot escape the listening ear, and in the presence of one or two attentive persons!
Mozart often used the key of G minor for very impassioned music, such as the two famous symphonies in G minor, and the opening movement of this quartet is no exception. Mozart achieves a near symphonic opulence of sound through his rich writing for the strings, especially his extensive writing for the viola. We are reminded that Mozart quite enjoyed playing viola. His chamber music with prominent viola parts—the “Kegelstatt” Trio for piano, clarinet, and viola, the string quintets with two violas, and the two piano quartets—has a warm, rich, chocolaty sound. The music of the G minor piano quartet is contrapuntally complex, with imitative writing shared between all the instruments. (Perhaps this is the source of the “difficulties” of this quartet.) The second movement is a noble song that would not be out of place in one of Mozart’s more serious operas. And the third movement, in the sunny key of G Major, is Haydnesque in its rhythmic humor and conversational exchanges between instruments. Today, the Piano Quartet in G minor is considered one of Mozart’s great masterpieces and the first major work composed for the piano quartet.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Trio in G Major, op. 9, no. 1
Composed 1798 in Vienna
The music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is perhaps the best-known, most-often performed classical music. Every one of his thirty-two piano sonatas, eighteen string quartets, and nine symphonies is considered a cornerstone of the Western musical canon. Because of Beethoven’s incredible achievement, these three genres—piano sonata, string quartet, and symphony—became the genres in which composers of future generations had to prove themselves. It’s not until Liszt that we get a piano sonata on the level of Beethoven or Schubert (although there are many truly beautiful sonatas in that interim); it’s not until Brahms that we get symphonies on that level; and, dare I say it, despite the beautiful efforts of many a great composer, there are not yet string quartets on that level, though the quartets of Bartók and Shostakovich are very highly regarded. Beethoven, of course, had great success in other genres as well—the sonata for piano and violin, the sonata for piano and cello, the piano trio, opera—but his success in all these traditional ventures tends to obscure the many compositional “experiments” Beethoven made along the way. And, I would guess that his exceptional success in the well-known (and profitable) genres tended to discourage a deep exploration of these other more “experimental” genres.
One of these “experimental” genres was the string trio for violin, viola, and cello. Beethoven wrote five string trios before he ever attempted a string quartet; once he completed his first quartets, he never returned to the string trio. Some commentators assert that Beethoven chose to write trios early in his career to test his skills at handling string instruments in an “easier” genre while avoiding a direct comparison with the string quartet masterpieces of Haydn and Mozart. But on examination, this argument does not hold water. As Alec Robertson points out, it is more difficult to achieve richness of tone and variety of texture using three instruments than four. As it turns out, the string trio is a genre that was well-suited to the style galant—a style that emphasizes charm and tunefulness, and rarely makes serious demands on the listener—and less well-suited to Beethoven’s blending of high classical and early romantic styles. Beethoven abandoned the string trio not because it was an “easier” genre, but because it was a less appropriate medium for his musical ideas.
Beethoven’s first attempt at the genre was in 1793-94 with his String Trio in E-flat Major, op. 3. It is a charming work with the multiple movements characteristic of a serenade or divertimento. His second work in the genre, his op. 8 written in 1797, is actually entitled “Serenade.” The three string trios of op. 9, written in 1797, are an altogether different story. Like the then-recently-composed London Symphonies of Haydn, the op. 9 trios each have four movements, and show a seriousness of purpose that is lacking in Beethoven’s earlier excursions into this genre. These trios are a tremendous compositional success, and Beethoven is remarkably successful at making three instruments sound like four.
The String Trio in G Major, op. 9, no. 1, again like Haydn’s London Symphonies, has a slow introduction that announces the work’s seriousness of purpose. It continues with melodies, motives, and developmental techniques that owe much to the example of Haydn. (Beethoven had studied with Haydn in the early 1790s. He claimed to have learned nothing from the older master, but his music belies his claim.) The second movement has a mesmerizing, rocking movement that reminds me of a lullaby. The third movement is a scherzo full of typically unpredictable maneuvers. The trio concludes with a lively, sparkling Presto that again owes much to the influence of Haydn.
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Trio in E-flat Major, D. 929
Composed November 1827 in Vienna
Schubert wrote two great piano trios in 1827, the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898, and the Piano Trio in E-flat Major, D. 929. Today, audiences seem to prefer the generous spirit, good nature, and relative compactness of the B-flat trio, and critics invariably comment on the considerable length of the E-flat trio. But audiences of the nineteenth century felt just the opposite: Robert Schumann, for example, found the E-flat trio more “spirited, masculine, and dramatic in tone” than its B-flat counterpart. The truth of the matter is that both trios are incomparable masterpieces created by a composer who was only thirty years old—and both are quite substantial works. As the critic James Keller points out, Schubert rarely gives the listener the impression of being in a hurry—Schumann described Schubert’s music as being of “heavenly length”—and to fully appreciate these works, one must surrender to their leisurely sense of the passage of time.
Schubert seems to have agreed with Schumann’s assessment, as he chose the E-flat trio as the centerpiece of the only public all-Schubert concert held during his lifetime. The work was premiered on December 26, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna, and met with such approval that Schubert considered this an important advance in his career. Also, the trio was the only one of Schubert’s works to be published outside of Austria during his lifetime.
The first movement opens with a striking motive stated by all three instruments in unison. The movement is cast in a classic sonata form and has a strong sense of dramatic motion. The slow movement is one of Schubert’s greatest creations, an impassioned instrumental song without words. As it turns out, it is derived from a song with words. Schubert’s friend Leopold Sonnleithner reported that the tune of this movement came from a Swedish folksong “Se solen sjunker” (“The sun has set”) which Schubert had heard in a recital in 1827. Sonnleithner’s comments were widely discounted until the musicologist Manfred Willfort rediscovered the Swedish folksong in 1978. Although Schubert did not copy the tune of “Se solen sjunker” directly, he drew great inspiration both from its melody and its treading accompaniment. The third movement, a scherzo, features tightly-controlled canonic writing. The fourth movement is vast, covering nearly 750 measures; Schubert himself expressed concerns about its length, and authorized judicious cuts. The Swedish melody of the slow movement reappears several times in this wide-ranging harmonic landscape, most notably at the very end of the finale, transformed into the major key, lending a sense of catharsis to the entire work.
Program notes by Jeffrey Sykes, PhD. ©2012, CPMF. All rights reserved.